Peter Berg is stalking across a boxing ring—gloves up, head bobbing, sinews twitching—looking for an opening so he can unleash a flurry of punches into the torso of his opponent, a recently retired Navy SEAL. Dressed in Johnny Cash black, the 51-year-old director of the films Friday Night Lights and Lone Survivor, drives the SEAL onto the ropes, where he lands a strong jab-cross combo, then vaults out of reach when his opponent strikes back. The SEAL pursues Berg into the middle of the ring, and the two men trade a series of loud, thwacking blows before embracing in a clinch. The bell rings and Berg flops down in his corner, drenched in sweat. He waves me over with his glove.
“Good way to wake up,” he growls through his mouth guard.
It’s 9 a.m. on a Tuesday at Wild Card West Boxing Club, the Santa Monica gym that Berg co-owns, and the director appears eerily calm, even serene, for someone engaged in hand-to-hand combat. But Peter Berg, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, is in his Zen place. “For me, this is kind of like yoga,” he tells me later.
Well, yoga with a fury. Colby Parker Jr., Berg’s longtime film editor, says that one of Berg’s most fundamental beliefs is that every time “one man meets another man, the first thing that goes through his mind, whether or not he knows it, is: ‘Can I take him in a fight?’” Taylor Kitsch, a frequent star in Berg’s films and a sometime sparring partner, says boxing with the director often means finding yourself in “a street fight...he can get very offensive—put it that way.” Or, in the words of Dwayne Johnson, another inveterate Berg collaborator: “In the ring and in training, Pete’s an absolute fucking animal.”
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Even when he’s not wearing boxing gloves, Berg can’t help but throw punches. During the making of 2007’s The Kingdom, Berg playfully socked his leading lady, Jennifer Garner, in the stomach, mistakenly believing she was wearing a protective flak jacket. (She wasn’t, but was unhurt.) During a break from filming 2013’s Lone Survivor, about Navy SEALs in Afghanistan, Berg got into a friendly midair brawl with his leading man, Mark Wahlberg, causing thousands of dollars of damage to the interior of the actor’s private jet. “He punched me in the throat once and I couldn’t talk for a week—that really made him happy,” Parker remembers. “He was excited to know that he might have crushed my larynx. He gets this weird Cheshire cat smile if he draws blood from you.”
Just a few years ago, such behavior might have gotten Berg mistaken for just another brash Hollywood ego run amok. After all, this was the guy who followed up a tepidly received Will Smith superhero movie, Hancock, with 2012’s Battleship, a $220 million board-game-adaptation flop. But since Battleship, Berg has shunned comic book and Hasbro projects and pursued what he’s described as a personal mission: making films and TV shows that depict the struggles of extremely capable, very physical, (usually) real-life men.